Prosecutors have agreed with defense attorneys that the conviction of D.C. man Cleveland Wright, 55, should be thrown out. Prosecutors acknowledged flaws in their case that were revealed through the DNA testing of Wright’s co-defendant Santae Tribble who was exonerated by a judge in 2012.
In an extremely rare ruling, Judge Laura Cordero granted Tribble a certificate of innocence. Tribble served 28 years in prison.
D.C. Superior Court Judge Laura A. Cordero found that “by clear and convincing evidence,” Tribble was not guilty and that he had nothing to do with the crime of which he was convicted.
In 1978, a hair was found at the crime scene of a taxi driver’s murder. That hair was “matched” microscopically by the FBI to Tribble. Decades later, DNA tests, however, excluded him as the killer. Tribble was the 3rd man to be exonerated since 2009 after serving a lengthy sentence based upon false hair matches by the FBI.
Wright served 28 years in prison as well. U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. cited discredited scientific evidence in agreeing to dismiss charges against Wright.
It is as much a prosecutor’s “duty to refrain from improper methods calculated to produce a wrongful conviction as it is to use every legitimate means to bring about a just one,” Machen wrote in court papers, quoting an oft-cited 1935 U.S. Supreme Court opinion.
Prosecutor Machen did not join Wright’s bid for a declaration of innocence, however, saying that the government had no position on the issue. Receiving a certificate of innocence can help a wrongfully convicted person obtain financial compensation for their unjust imprisonment. Machen did say he would not seek a retrial because the prosecution could not develop new evidence.
Wright was convicted of murdering a floral shop worker in the early morning during a robbery in the summer of 1978. He was released from prison in 2007 and placed on lifetime parole.
36 years ago, Wright, who was 20 at the time, and his childhood friend, Santae Tribble, who was 17 at the time, were accused of teaming up to rob and kill two men using the same weapon, 2 weeks apart in the same Washington neighborhood. Tribble was acquitted at trial of the flower shop worker’s murder and Wright was acquitted at trial of the cabdriver’s murder. The DNA testing showed that the hairs from inside the robber’s mask did not match Wright or Tribble.
“If neither of them was the masked murderer of [the first victim], then neither of them was the murderer of [the second], as the same gun was used to kill both men under similar circumstances,” wrote Sandra K. Levick, chief of special litigation for the D.C. Public Defender Service, which handled each man’s post-conviction petitions.
“The interest of the United States ‘in a criminal prosecution is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done,’ ” Machen wrote, again citing the high court’s 1935 opinion in Berger v. United States.
Wright wept upon hearing the news and said that he would continue to ask the court for full exoneration.
“For 35 years Cleveland Wright has protested his innocence. Today we learned that the United States is vindicating his quest for justice,” Levick said in a written statement, “On Mr. Wright’s behalf, [the Public Defender Service] looks forward to what it hopes will be quick action by the court…”
52-year-old William Horn, the flower shop worker, was killed as he walked from his car to his apartment building at about 2:30 a.m. on July 13, 1978. 63-year-old John McCormick, the taxi driver, was killed on his front porch 13 days later, after parking his cab at about 3:10 a.m. Both men were killed with .32-caliber ammunition that police said were fired from the same gun.